January 19, 2019

The National Defense Strategy a Year Later: A Small Wars Journal Discussion with Elbridge Colby

Source: Small Wars Journal

Journalist: Octavian Manea

Let’s unpack the notion of principled realism at the core of both NDS and NSS. How is the world perceived through the lens of the principled realism? What type of international order is envisaged?

Principled realism focuses through a realist lens on building a free, open, and dignified political order within the international system. The logic is that America needs to play power politics so that we don’t live in a power politics world. Principled realism accepts that power and especially the agglomeration of power determines international outcomes. But it seeks to adapt that reality in service of positive ends. Principled realism diverges from other contending conceptual camps–progressive transnationalism, security communities, or the so-called rules-based order approach–in recognizing that the state as a political unit and military power and wealth as the currency of international politics remain fundamental. These other camps believe that, if one could properly construct security communities or cultural compatibility, one could escape interstate competition.

Idealism about transcending war and the state reflects progressive views of world politics. These approaches, then, tend to see the melting away of the state as inevitable and the state and its military and economic power as less and less important. But principled realism reminds us that the state will remain the primary player in the international arena. In this sense, the 2018 National Defense Strategy is really more an empirical assessment of the primacy of the state. But it is not a machtpolitik strategy; it does not seek power maximization for its own sake or to dominate others. Rather, it seeks an enlightened sense of national sovereignty to promote a free and open order in which countries can determine their own fate, consistent with America’s interests in independence, sovereignty, and non-domination of countries in the key regions, particularly Asia and Europe. The NDS is clear-eyed in recognizing that interstate competition is the key dynamic driving today’s strategic environment, and that preventing the rise of a regional hegemon that can project power against us or exclude us from fair terms of trade is our highest national imperative.

To what extent is the worldview embedded in the NDS and NSS building on the previous conceptualizations like rules-based order? In the end, the post WW2 liberal international order was based on both power and rules, power legitimized through rules.

What’s wrong with the “international rules-based order” language is that rules per se do not define international order. “Rules based order” sounds like conceiving of or attempting to turn the international environment into a domestic environment. But a domestic environment requires the preponderance of power by a sovereign, which is incompatible with the preservation of meaningful state sovereignty. The other problem with the “rules-based order” phrase is that it tends to focus people on violations of the “rules” rather than the real issue, which is power. My favorite example is the South China Sea. If the Chinese could create artificial features, militarize them, and achieve military dominance in the South China Sea – and do this all legally – we would still have a problem with it. The issue is the attempt to dominate the South China Sea and beyond that South East Asia, not the rules per se. Just like the American Constitution, it is the checks and balances system that matters more than the particular rules, which are subject to change. That is why I prefer the term “a free and open order.”

There is another aspect here: Americans are jealous of our sovereignty. We don’t want to dissolve our sovereignty in transnational organizations; we want to retain flexibility. The NDS and the NSS reflect a different vision from the Obama Administration--maybe not a 180 degree shift, but a fundamental distinction in that the Obama Administration aspired ultimately toward a pooling of national sovereignty toward trans-nationalism. President Obama was instrumentally inclined toward some element of realism, i.e., prudence, but his administration’s basic approach was not principled realism. It was a progressive administration that was in some respects instrumentally prudential.

Read the full conversation in Small Wars Journal.


  • Elbridge Colby